American Apartheid, by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton

American Apartheid

American Apartheid is a classic work of sociology from 1993 about residential segregation, its causes and effects. It paints a decidedly negative picture of American society, showing how little progress has been made in eliminating or even lessening racism, largely because white people simply don’t want to live in close proximity with more than a very small number of black people. As the authors put it: “Our fundamental argument is that racial segregation—and its characteristic institutional form, the black ghetto—are the key structural factors responsible for the perpetuation of black poverty in the United States.”

American Apartheid is a work of academic research. I did not find the prose to be particularly obscure or unnecessarily incomprehensible the way academic prose is commonly criticized (all too often accurately) for being, but I wouldn’t call it an easy read. It’s a dry scholarly work with lots of tables and numbers. If that’s not what you’re up for as a reader, you could perhaps just read the first few paragraphs and the last few paragraphs of each chapter to at least get the gist of the argument.

I mention that the book is from 1993 because while a fair amount of it seems to me likely to still be true, I really don’t know what the current research shows. So this is an eye-opening and important snapshot of its time, but one should always keep in mind that that time was 20-30 years ago.

Just as a lay observer of such things, I’m pulled in both directions on the question of whether things have improved much in the intervening years.

On the negative side, the stats that I’ve seen here and there indicate that the gap between rich and poor has only gotten worse in recent years, and that urban blacks stuck in ghettos account for a lot of the difference as they have been especially hit hard by events such as the major recession/minor depression that hit at the tail end of the George W. Bush years. The election of Trump and the way that has made certain people a lot braver about being openly “politically incorrect” on race has brought a great deal of ugliness to the surface that shows that there is at least a sizable minority of the white population that remains blatantly racist.

I mean, consider this study by the Michigan Democratic Party, cited in the book and thus decades old:

After carrying out a series of focus-group interviews in blue-collar neighborhoods suburbs of Detroit, the study concluded that working-class whites “express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics…Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live.”

If you replace “working-class whites” with “Trump voters,” or perhaps with “working-class white Trump voters,” doesn’t that sound utterly true of today? Especially if perhaps you expand “blacks” to “blacks and foreigners, especially undocumented immigrants”?

On the other hand, on the positive side I get the sense from things I’ve read, including polls, and maybe a little bit from interacting with people in real life, that the younger generations—people now in their teens and twenties or maybe thirties, say—are finally losing some of those attitudes, that a significantly higher percentage of them than of the members of previous generations just don’t particularly care that a given person in their life is black (or transgender or atheist or whatever).

So I would think there are still plenty of racist people making the same kind of life choices that resulted in the ghettoization of an entire race of people, but that they constitute a significantly lower percentage of the white population than in the past—such as when this book came out—mostly because of how young people differ from older people in their attitudes. That’s my speculation anyway.

But the question is whether there has been enough change to affect the dynamics of residential segregation and the factors that keep the bulk of black people more or less confined in ghettos, and I would guess the answer to that is largely no.

Anyway, getting back to the book (and keeping in mind that even if I use the present tense, we’re talking about a 1993 book using research from the ’80s and very early ’90s, if not before), the authors contend that their thesis—that residential segregation is the main factor in the perpetuation of the alarming degree of black poverty in the United States—is solidly contrary to scholarly opinion.

Other theorists have competing explanations for the sorry state of black neighborhoods, they say, but what they all have in common is denying or ignoring the hypothesis that residential segregation is a significant factor. The authors don’t so much disagree with the points made by these other folks, but they believe that at best they are capturing only part of the picture.

They cite four such explanations for why blacks fare as poorly as they do and end up living dysfunctional lives in ghettos.

One, city dwellers—and blacks disproportionately live in cities—in general often do poorly because cities tend to attract people with certain negative cultural traits (e.g., poor impulse control, limited time horizons, high self-doubt, low self-esteem) that can manifest themselves in phenomena such as crime, drug use, unwed teen pregnancy, etc., and when you put a lot of people like that together the traits tend to reinforce each other and the group as a whole spirals downward.

Two, racism in schools and the economy keeps blacks from getting the kind of good education and good jobs that enable one to get out of poverty.

Three, welfare programs foster dependency and create perverse incentives, like making it advantageous to have kids you can’t afford to take care of, not get married, not get a job, etc.

Four, economic changes such as the collapse of manufacturing jobs and the switch to more of a service economy screwed poor urban people especially, and since blacks are disproportionately poor and urban they suffered disproportionately.

In response, the authors claim that when other factors (e.g., being poor, working in an industry that lost massive jobs to automation and overseas labor, education level, etc.) are controlled for, there’s still a large gap between white and black that can only be plausibly explained as the effects of residential segregation.

I find what they say here persuasive. In fact it’s almost too persuasive, in the sense that if their thesis really is so clearly supported by all the studies and statistics they are able to marshal in its favor, why is theirs a minority position? How could all these other folks working in the field have missed this?

One thing that came as a surprise to me as they tell the history of segregation in America, and I assume would surprise most readers, is that prior to 1900 or so there really wasn’t much residential segregation. “No matter what other disadvantages urban blacks suffered in the aftermath of the Civil War, they were not racially segregated from whites. The two racial groups moved in a common social world, spoke a common language, shared a common culture, and interacted personally on a regular basis.”

The few blacks who lived in the North were mostly spread around all over cities rather than being kept confined to their own neighborhoods. In the South, Jim Crow laws and customs enforced many kinds of inequality between the races, but for the most part keeping blacks from living in proximity with whites wasn’t a part of Jim Crow. For one thing, prior to cars and buses and such, people who worked in service to whites—as maids, handymen, common laborers of whatever kind, etc.—had to live at least reasonably close by. So a typical arrangement in a Southern city would be segregation by street or block rather than neighborhood. Whites would live on a nice, well-maintained street, and blacks would live on lesser streets or alleys in the same area or even running parallel to it one block away.

Even insofar as there were “black” neighborhoods in some cities, it was fairly easy for middle class and above black people to escape them and move to predominately white areas if they chose to.

But then increasing industrialization and technological changes led to massive population shifts from rural to urban and in the case of blacks especially from the South to the North, not to mention immigration to the U.S. from other countries. All of a sudden cities were inundated with far more blacks and immigrants than had ever lived there in the past.

Gradually, white business owners and managers moved farther away from central cities, being willing to tolerate a long commute in exchange for not having to live amongst the riff raff. The whites who didn’t have the wherewithal to follow suit now found themselves in competition for jobs with the newcomers, who were disproportionately low in education and poor, and in the case of immigrants often couldn’t speak English, and therefore desperate and willing to work for very low wages. They also now had to contend with all the problems that come from greatly increasing the population density of neighborhoods by adding a lot of poor people.

Employers routinely created and exploited conflicts among these groups. Blacks were used as scabs; unions kept blacks out in favor of their existing members. The increasing racial animosity meant working-class whites no longer found it acceptable to live around blacks. Since most could not realistically move very far away to where their bosses lived, local neighborhoods within the city gradually became more segregated.

Some of it was just a matter of numbers. A smattering of blacks spread around to where each neighborhood was 1% or 3% or whatever black wasn’t all that threatening, even to whites who weren’t thrilled about being around blacks. But 25% or 30% or 40% or whatever of each neighborhood being black—which could have happened after the migration of millions of blacks from the South to the cities of the North—was quite threatening, and could not be allowed to happen.

It was also a matter of numbers in the sense of “strength in numbers.” Blacks found that if they now attempted to move to a white neighborhood, whites commonly became violent against them. So it was safer to remain in a black neighborhood, even if the neighborhood was deteriorating and in most respects was undesirable. By staying amongst their own kind, blacks would avoid one of the key provocations of white violence, not to mention if whites were still inclined to be violent toward them even without that provocation, they might think twice if in order to get at their potential victims they had to enter a ghetto that was 90% or 95% or more black.

Moving through the 20th century, the intentional actions of whites, realtors, banks, government entities, etc. made it all but impossible for blacks to leave the ghetto for better neighborhoods, even middle class and above blacks. When they did manage to move out, it was almost always to neighboring areas, which typically caused whites to flee those areas, thus gradually expanding the ghetto.

Court cases invalidated some of the tools used to enforce residential segregation, such as restrictive covenants, and finally by the ’60s important civil rights legislation was passed. But the Fair Housing Act was one of the least effective of those pieces of legislation (in order to get it passed, most of its enforcement provisions were compromised away), and the judicial elimination of certain tools of discrimination had only minimal impact. It’s like whites decided that this was going to be where they would make their stand. They might grudgingly put up with a certain amount of integration at the workplace, in public transportation, whatever, but they weren’t going to live in neighborhoods they deemed unsafe due to their racial make-up.

Again it was a numbers thing, and it’s interesting that even as white racist attitudes against blacks diminished significantly in the second half of the 20th century (based on polling and various studies), certain numbers still generated a high degree of residential segregation.

If, as evidenced by their behavior, the races have substantially different preferences as far as the racial composition of where they live, then an integrated neighborhood is inherently unstable.

It works like this: Blacks typically don’t want to live in a nearly all-white neighborhood, and they regard living in a nearly all-black neighborhood as almost as bad. About half and half is best, as far as they’re concerned, with 20% black, 70% black, or anything not too far from an even split being almost as good. Meanwhile, modern whites are fine with an all-white neighborhood, with most also being fine with, or even preferring, a modestly integrated neighborhood, say 5% black, something like that. But the more black it gets beyond that, the less they like it.

OK, so consider a historically segregated white neighborhood, that now, as a result of changes in the laws and such is unable to maintain its all-white status. A few blacks will move in, with some trepidation since at this stage it’s far from an ideal neighborhood in their perception, and then as their numbers increase, more blacks will see it as a desirable neighborhood, thus quickening the pace of the demographic changes. Eventually probably somewhere just beyond 50% black the neighborhood will start to become less desirable to blacks, and if the percentage of blacks gets still higher the number of blacks wanting to live there will drop significantly. Meanwhile, more and more whites find the neighborhood not to their liking, and that only gets more extreme as more blacks move in.

So at 10% black, blacks are eager to live there, and whites like it pretty much too. Result: A modest tendency for the black percentage to increase. At 20% black, blacks like it even more, and whites think it’s just OK. Result: A little more of a tendency for the black percentage to increase. At 30% black, blacks are really liking it, and now a lot of whites have serious doubts about it. Result: Even stronger pressure for the black percentage to increase. At 50% black, blacks like it best of all as their ideal neighborhood, while whites are mostly no longer comfortable and are willing to take less for their houses to get away. Result: Very strong pressure for the black percentage to increase. At 70% black, it’s maybe not ideal in the eyes of blacks but it’s still quite good, while whites see it as a clearly bad neighborhood and want little to do with it. Result: Continued very strong pressure for the black percentage to increase. At 80%, blacks see it as an acceptable but no longer really desirable neighborhood that they can tolerate staying in or moving to if they lack better options, while whites are in full scale panic rushing for the exits even if they have to give away their houses. Result: All or almost all of the remaining whites will flee and the black percentage of the neighborhood will approach 100%.

So at a very low level of integration, it kind of teeters; there’s not all that much difference in how desirable a neighborhood it is perceived to be by whites and blacks. But if the black percentage gets much above that (as it likely will, since blacks trying to escape the ghetto often don’t have a lot of choices and so will jump at an opportunity to live in even a neighborhood that’s just pretty good in their perception), it soon crosses a threshold where it becomes clearly more desirable to blacks than whites, and once that ball gets rolling the demographic changes come faster and faster until soon enough the neighborhood is all or almost all black.

One point addressed in the book is the contention that many white ethnic immigrant groups, not to mention Asians, Latinos (if you consider them nonwhite), and others, suffered discrimination and for a time lived in neighborhoods, even ghettos, with their own kind, and yet they didn’t get “stuck” there, the way blacks seemingly have gotten stuck in their ghettos. So why are blacks different in this regard (especially, some would add, when they have gotten more “help” than other groups through civil rights activism and legislation and such)?

The authors’ answer is that the cases are relevantly much different, for three main reasons.

One, the supposedly ethnic neighborhoods of the past were never very homogenous to begin with. A neighborhood with the reputation as a “Jewish,” “Polish,” “Irish,” whatever neighborhood, might be 30%, 40%, or rarely 50% that ethnicity, but never 80% or 90% or 100% like black neighborhoods.

Two, most people of those ethnicities never lived in these neighborhoods associated with them. In a given city, maybe the “Italian” neighborhood would be 40% Italian, but there would also be a very large number of Italians living in other neighborhoods that weren’t “Italian” neighborhoods, in fact more total than lived in the “Italian” neighborhood. Whereas not only were almost all the people living in black ghettos black, almost no blacks lived outside of black ghettos.

Three, though at times there was animosity and discrimination directed against these other ethnicities, ranging from modest to pretty serious, the hatred of blacks and the desire to avoid living near them was consistently more intense. So the resistance to a Pole or a Jew moving in next door was considerably less than the resistance to a black doing so, and more commonly overcome.

As a result, living amongst their own kind was something that immigrants, if they did it at all (many, indeed most, didn’t), typically did for just a generation or two. As they achieved some degree of success, they—or more likely their children or grandchildren—moved up and out of the ghetto, and were permitted to do so, albeit at times grudgingly. In this way they were able to participate in the American Dream in a way that was largely closed off to blacks.

When ghettos become as bad as black ghettos are in this country as a result of residential segregation, there is considerable pressure on them to become even worse, as the authors explain. (This is the “culture of poverty” stuff, which, remember, they did not reject earlier. They contended only that it alone does not explain why blacks tend to do so poorly in America, that you need to also understand how residential segregation—the factor that almost everyone in their field ignores or downplays—is crucial to creating and sustaining the disastrous culture of the ghetto.)

When individuals who have socially unhealthy, destructive traits (e.g., they’re apt to impregnate or get pregnant in their teens, disvalue education, have a poor work ethic, abuse drugs, have poor impulse control, commit crimes, etc.) live in neighborhoods where they are surrounded mostly by people who are not so fucked up, there is hope for them, and for their offspring. They don’t all straighten up, not by a long shot, but with plenty of decent role models around, they’ve got a legitimate chance.

When instead they are surrounded almost exclusively by people comparably fucked up, all the bad traits reinforce each other and are very likely to be passed on to each succeeding generation. This is what residential segregation has created in many American cities: a perpetual underclass of people of one race who are stuck in an enclosed area where they rarely interact with anyone but each other.

One consequence of isolating a group of people in that way is that their language drifts farther and farther from the mainstream. Thus the development of Black English, or Ebonics, a dialect that overlaps considerably with standard English but that is sufficiently different that communication between people of these two different language communities, both spoken and written, can be a chore. For those who use standard English that’s not much of a problem, since it is rare that one of them would have a need to communicate in Ebonics. However, it’s a big deal for those raised with Ebonics, because comfort with standard English is generally a prerequisite to a decent education and decent job.

An interesting observation that the authors make is that if you look at studies from the ’60s and ’70s, much of the developing black ghetto culture, including its unhealthiest aspects, was thought of explicitly as a rejection of, and alternative to, mainstream (white) culture, a kind of sour grapes thing in the sense that blacks were largely excluded from that culture.

So if doing well in school provided a promising future to most white people, but for most black people doing well in school was both much harder and a lot less automatically correlated with a promising future, then people in the ghetto came to think of doing well in school as a “white” thing, and as a result took a perverse pride in doing the opposite, i.e., failing in school. Ghetto students who tried to be exceptions to this and do well in school were bullied, ridiculed, ostracized, and otherwise punished for not being loyal to their people’s anti-education “culture.”

But gradually after that, results from studies indicated that black ghetto culture was drifting so far off on its own that its adherents largely stopped thinking of it as contrasted with mainstream (white) culture. They were so far removed from mainstream values that they neither accepted nor rejected them.

An example the authors discuss is sex and gender relations. It is common for ghetto males to value having sex with as many women as they can, and to not accept responsibility for any offspring that result. Meanwhile it is common for ghetto females to accept, if not actively seek, getting pregnant when very young and unmarried, in part for a welfare check, but even more so for the improvement in their social status that it brings. The latter occurs because everyone raves about how beautiful every baby is, and makes a big fuss over it and the mother, plus young mothers bond with each other as a kind of mutually supportive club whose members have completed a certain rite of passage that makes them grown-ups.

But what they don’t do, typically, is contrast this with white behavior. It’s not, “I like to trick a lot of bitches into letting me fuck them because white people don’t do that,” or “Stop acting so white waiting until you’re out of your teens to have your first baby!” It’s not about trying to be white or trying to avoid being white; it’s an independent culture.

So, again, the authors don’t deny that there is a culture of poverty that many urban blacks are mired in. What they insist is that it’s not just the flaws and failures of individuals that brings about and sustains such an unhealthy culture, but to a greater extent societal factors, and that a key such societal factor in this case is residential segregation based on race.

One last thing I’ll mention is one of the few areas where I have some doubts about the authors’ position.

They cite various studies and polls that they interpret to show that while racism and prejudice amongst whites is down from where it was at its worst, it’s still strong and widespread. Perhaps it is, but I contend that some at least of these studies and polls don’t show that.

The kind of findings they cite are things like that some significant percentage of whites believe blacks are more likely than whites to commit crimes, be lazy, be less intelligent, not take care of their homes, etc.

But are beliefs like that, by themselves, “racist”? I have my doubts.

For one thing, “more” doesn’t mean that all the members of one race have a certain trait and none of the members of another race do. Someone might respond to a poll question about whether whites are more, less, or equally likely to have a good work ethic as blacks by choosing “more” because their opinion is that 20% of whites and 15% of blacks have a good work ethic. That would be “more.”

Relatedly, and more importantly, what if the beliefs in question are simply true, which they often are? If a pollster asked me if blacks or whites are more likely to go to prison, be ignorant of a lot of facts that a well-educated person should know, and have kids before they can afford to take care of them, a sincere answer would be “blacks.”

That’s not necessarily racist, because it doesn’t address why these things are true. If I answer “more” because I think there’s something inherent in being black that makes a person more likely to have various unhealthy characteristics, that’s one thing. But maybe I think the reason for the racial discrepancy is that the average black person is more likely than the average white person, for reasons that typically aren’t their fault, to receive inferior prenatal care, live somewhere with lead paint on the walls, attend a poor quality school, have to deal with the fact that many of the people who have the most influence over the success or failure of their lives treat them poorly because of the color of their skin, and so on.

Seriously damaged people behave worse, on average, than people who haven’t been seriously damaged. And black people in America are more likely to have been seriously damaged than white people.

Heck, isn’t that what this whole book is about? Surely the authors themselves believe that blacks are less likely to value education, more likely to be sexually irresponsible, etc., since they explicitly say so. If they answered a poll accordingly, would that be an indication that they are prejudiced against black people.


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